Scientists knew by the early 1900s that radioactive substances emit some sort of particles. But it was unclear exactly what kind—does uranium produce a vapor of uranium or a totally different gas?
The dilemma was solved by Harriet Brooks, a talented physicist in her mid-20s. In 1901, in a set of experiments in McGill University’s newly established physics laboratory, Brooks showed that radioactivity actually involves the creation of entirely new atomic elements, a kind of alchemy that previously eluded physicists. Along with her mentor, Ernest Rutherford, she identified the element that was later called radon.
Today, for this contribution and others, Rutherford is rightly considered the “father of nuclear physics.” Brooks’ career in physics was, however, cut short, and her contributions to science were mostly forgotten.
Many modern women have similarly been put in peril of disappearing from the science world by the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2020, analyses of the preprint service arXiv, where physicists share research papers before submitting them to journals, showed that women have authored fewer studies during the pandemic. Research in Nature Human Behaviour found that female physicists faced a reduction in research time that was nearly 50 percent bigger than their male counterparts’. Women in the workforce who managed to keep employment through the most turbulent period of the pandemic reported more stress and burnout than their male colleagues.
As the crisis went on, follow-up studies showed similar trends: Female researchers consistently reported a greater inability to concentrate on research and more unanticipated child care responsibilities than their male colleagues. These gendered effects are likely to have a long-term impact on female physicists’ career arcs, as consistent publication is a big factor for future employment and earning tenure, awards, and promotions.
It is all too easy even for women who have made meaningful contributions to science to be sidelined. It’s been happening for a very long time. Brooks’ stymied career and forgotten legacy serves as a good example.
Born in Exeter, Canada, in 1876, Brooks was the first Canadian nuclear physicist and the first woman to receive a master’s degree from McGill University (the school had only been educating women at all for a few decades). She was Rutherford’s first graduate student at McGill. There, she resolved one of the most perplexing problems of early 20th century chemistry when she discovered that radioactive heavy elements release an entirely different element as they decay. Specifically, by analyzing emissions from the radioactive element thorium she determined that they are not just more thorium in vapor form, but rather a new gas that we now call radon. This discovery demonstrated that radioactive elements transform to other elements, a fact that is core to the modern conception of radioactivity. To put it simply, Brooks’ contributions stand at the foundation of contemporary nuclear science.
Brooks authored research papers by herself and with Rutherford. He vividly cited her work and gave her credit in his later publications and lectures, but Brooks’ contributions to physics have largely gone unnoticed. Until recently, the discovery of radon was typically attributed to Rutherford alone. Brooks was only inducted into the Canadian Science and Engineering Hall of Fame in 2002, almost 70 years after her death.
In 2010, the American Physical Society honored Rutherford and his collaborator Frederick Soddy for their work on radioactivity by presenting plaques to McGill University. Brooks, whose contributions had been a constituent part of their work, went unmentioned. Nowadays, the scientist Rutherford once praised as “the most pre-eminent woman physicist in the department of radioactivity,” next to Marie Curie, doesn’t have a fraction of the name recognition. In the catalog of the historical collection of Rutherford’s instruments at McGill, Brooks is mentioned by name only once, though the work she co-authored is cited repeatedly.
Whether women make it into the canon of science depends not just on their brilliance but on their support system. Brooks often ran into career obstacles related to her gender. She did not come from a wealthy family and was able to earn several fellowships. After her time at McGill, she secured a position to teach physics at Barnard College, a women’s liberal arts college in New York. She was dismissed from that role after announcing her first marital engagement. The college’s dean at the time, Laura Gill, bluntly told her that the engagement was tantamount to termination. Three years later, Brooks married a physics instructor at McGill named Frank Pitcher. Having left Barnard, she was working as a full-time researcher at the Curie-led Radium Institute in Paris, and had secured an appointment at the University of Manchester. Though Rutherford strongly supported this career move, Pitcher encouraged Brooks to settle down with him in Montreal instead. In this way, Brooks’ marriage effectively ended her scientific career.
Marie Curie ran into obstacles because of her gender too, like being rejected for membership in the French Academy of Sciences and even discouraged from accepting her second Nobel Prize after a sexist and xenophobic French press painted her as an adulteress (Curie was Polish). However, Marie Curie’s husband was her greatest champion. Most dramatically, Pierre Curie’s insistence to the Nobel Prize awarding committee that Marie’s work deserved to be recognized contributed to her becoming the first woman to ever win the award. Brooks did have Rutherford in her corner, in addition to her strong credentials as a scientist, but she lacked a life partner who was actively encouraging of her work in physics.
Brooks’ sudden disappearance from the research world was a result of the compounding effects of financial factors, absence of a life partner supporting her career, and social norms and expectations of women at the time. Over a century later, her story unfortunately does not come across as an unrelatable piece of a long-forgotten past.
Some obstacles faced by women of Brooks’ generation have been lifted, but many others have merely metamorphosed. The gender-based pay gap, bias against research paper submissions with lead female authors, male co-workers’ minimization of women’s contributions to projects, and token minority hires all herald the need for further action. Recent studies show that, to manage added domestic responsibilities under COVID, families are increasingly falling back into traditional gender roles, and women are still advised to be careful about whom they marry because it will influence their careers—just as it did Brooks’. Cultural, political, and institutional changes, such as support for child care and a systemic reevaluation of hiring and promotion practices, will be crucial for the success of Brooks’ modern counterparts.
In the meantime, it is worth recognizing that Brooks’ time in research was limited by factors largely unrelated to her scientific prowess—and even with those obstacles, she still made important contributions to her field. The significance of her work should not be minimized because she did not have the privilege of committing her whole life to science. In fact, telling her story may expand the notion of who counts as a great scientist today.